Lessons from the Edge of Liberty

It is considerably less painful to learn from the mistakes of others than from your own, and it is less costly to learn from the successes of others, versus your own trial and effort. As we consider how to resist the looming effort of the authoritarian Left to transform our system of republican self-governance into an autocratic unitary state, we should examine the experiences of other resistance movements. Two ongoing struggles with very different results are the independence movement in Catalonia and the pro-democracy movement in Myanmar.

Catalan Independence Movement

Catalonia is a unique ethnic region in northeastern Spain. It is relatively small, a little larger than the state of Maryland, and has a history of regional self-governance and an independent-minded, hard-working people. The educational makeup of the region is comparable to that of the United States, and it has a relatively high standard of living. 

While the region has been a Spanish autonomous community for most of the past 150 years, in 2006, the Catalonian political party Partido Popular challenged this limited autonomous status and began the modern movement for full independence from Spain. From 2009 through 2014, the movement mounted numerous symbolic referendums for independence, protests, strikes, and political and civil actions. Even though the 2014 symbolic referendum on independence was outlawed by Spain, it was popularly upheld in Catalonia, and in 2015, separatists won the regional elections. The pro-independence movement then pushed forward to hold a full independence referendum in October 2017, which was immediately declared illegal by the Spanish government.

In the run-up to the 2017 referendum, Madrid waged an intensive political warfare campaign against the Catalan independence movement. Reacting to Madrid’s actions, the Catalonian parliament rushed to declare independence on October 27, 2017. Madrid immediately responded by dissolving the regional parliament, sacking its leaders, placing Catalonia under direct rule, and setting new regional elections for that December.

Although the separatists won a slim majority in the December elections, Madrid blocked several of the candidates, issued arrest warrants for the movement’s leadership, and effectively halted the drive for independence. The independence movement’s leader, former Catalonian president Carles Puigdemont, and four of his cabinet ministers fled abroad in order to avoid arrest. Those who remained were charged with treason and sedition. Nine of the independence movement leaders, including Catalonian Vice President Oriol Junqueras, were convicted in Spanish courts and received sentences of nine to 13 years.

Civil unrest in the form of general strikes and protests has continued sporadically in the Catalan region ever since. The current Catalan independence leaders are seeking to re-engage a weary public, but the movement has been weakened by disunity and the lack of a strong consensus for independence as a result of Madrid’s effective disruption and intimidation operations.

Lessons from Catalonia

The 2017 Catalan struggle for independence was blunted, fragmented, and disrupted in a classic example of asymmetric political warfare. The independence movement was actually a broad coalition of various cultural identity groups, separatist groups, unions, and working class socialist political parties. The movement’s political actions were limited to protests, marches, strikes, and various propaganda efforts. None of the groups within the coalition had a significant history of armed or physical resistance, and they were, by and large, similar to our Twitter blue checks and classically liberal boomers.

Madrid countered through the strategic use of both overt and covert influence operations which drove a wedge between the hodgepodge of incongruent identity groups. Madrid used this seam to make a strong case to maintain the Spanish union and quickly divided the Catalan population. Once divided, the Spanish security services infiltrated the various independence groups, recruited informants, and catalogued their members. Next, they applied pressure to employers to fire dissident employees, arrested key leaders, and finally, used the national security services and their local partners in a brutal campaign of intimidation and violence, which included destroying polling stations as well as arresting and physically assaulting voters and independence movement supporters.

This coalition of pro-independence groups was unprepared for the viciousness of Madrid’s counterattack. They were clearly stunned by the blacklisting (which we now call “canceling”), loss of jobs, and physical violence they received. Though they were well-organized, the movement’s members melted in the face of Madrid’s undemocratic tactics. Complaints of thuggery and human rights violations against the movement’s supporters fell on deaf ears in Madrid, and international condemnation was treated as an inconsequential annoyance in the Spanish government’s drive to stop Catalonian independence. Madrid’s coup de grace came when the movement’s members were cowed into submission and abandoned their leadership. In the ultimate humiliation, the leadership was charged with treason and sedition, resulting in several key leaders forced into exile, while those who remained were promptly arrested, convicted, and imprisoned as political prisoners.

Lessons Learned: 

  • Know your enemy and know yourself (your people). The Catalan independence movement vastly underestimated Madrid’s will to retain control of Catalonia. They also overestimated the commitment of their own coalition to pursue the end-state of independence. When push literally came to shove, the movement folded. Yes, they wanted their independence, but only if Madrid would hand it to them. In the end, they were unwilling to fight for it and take it by whatever means necessary. 
  • Use a multi-domain strategy of political action. The Catalan independence movement was not a multi-domain effort. The movement’s strategy was limited to protests, marches, strikes, and rousing speeches in front of the cameras. There was very little application of pain points using more aggressive disruptive strategies against Madrid’s vulnerable sectors (financial, transportation, information technology), and no underlying threat of a wider armed rebellion. 
  • Do not prematurely commit to battle/conflict when the conditions for victory are uncertain. The independence movement’s October 27th declaration of independence was a premature step into a battle where the conditions for victory were not just uncertain, but highly unlikely. The movement’s leadership acted rashly and did so without a plan to counter Madrid’s inevitable response. In the end, the October 27th declaration of independence was the catalyst for the effective collapse of the movement. 
  • Anticipate and account for dirty political warfare tactics. You may not be interested in violence and human rights violations, but they are interested in you. The side holding power is not going to voluntarily cede that power solely because of lofty ideas of democracy, human rights, and international condemnation. China is currently running concentration camps for its ethnic minority Uyghurs, where they are subjected to forced labor, mass rape, and organ harvesting. Nobody cares. American companies are still making billions of dollars on the backs of Uyghur forced labor. Don’t count on others to protect your human rights or fight against the undemocratic tactics of your enemy. Playing the victim is the low-return strategy of losers. 


In its present and rapidly evolving state, the situation in Myanmar decidedly contrasts with that of the Catalonian independence movement. Myanmar, formerly known as Burma, has a population of 54 million and is roughly the size of the state of Texas. Its population is diverse with numerous ethnic enclaves throughout its remote regions. The country is rich in natural resources, including gems, minerals, natural gas, and oil. China is its primary economic partner and operates numerous textile and garment manufacturing concerns throughout the country. 

Myanmar, which gained independence from the British in 1948, has a long history of armed struggle. Burma was a major World War II battleground, and Burmese ethnic groups formed the Burmese Independence Army which, with U.S. and British assistance, fought and defeated the Japanese occupation forces, killing over 150,000 Japanese soldiers. 

Since a 1962 military coup established one-party rule in the country, Myanmar has been a soup sandwich of armed rebellion, democracy movements, brief periods of non-military rule, and military coups. In 2011, the country was restored to nominal civilian control with an elected presidency under a bicameral parliamentary government. The military, also called the Tatmadaw, maintained control of approximately one-third of all parliamentary seats and de facto control of primary government institutions. 

Ethnic minority groups, such as the Kachin, Rahkine, Karen, Lahi, Shan, and ethnic Chinese rebels have fought nearly continuous guerrilla wars of independence against the government since the country gained its independence. Ethnic guerrilla groups in Myanmar are relatively well-armed and experienced, but up until a military coup in February of this year, they have restricted their armed resistance activities to the independence of their respective ethnic regions. 

The pro-democracy political party is the National League for Democracy (NLD), headed by Aung San Suu Kyi. The NLD was the ruling party from 2015 until the latest military coup d’état on February 1. The NLD is a well-established and organized political movement whose members are no strangers to operating in a non-permissive environment. They are capable of collecting and disseminating intelligence and logistically supporting the movement’s objectives. They have been hardened by decades of corrupt military rule and its resulting tyranny. 

Following the latest round of national elections, in which the NLD won a majority of seats, the Tatmadaw deposed the democratically-elected NLD government and placed the country under a year-long state of emergency. The president, state counsellor, ministers, deputies, and members of parliament were placed under arrest and charged with treason and sedition. The Tatmadaw quickly declared martial law and commenced a brutal crackdown on all dissent. Using mass arrests, assassination, disappearances, torture, and control of the country’s internet and cellular phone services, the Tatmadaw is focusing on a kinetic solution to quash the growing resistance movement. Since the February 1 coup, over 200 protestors have been killed by the Tatmadaw in street violence and military operations. 

The resistance movement is centered around the NLD and is represented by the Committee Representing the Pyidaungsu Hluttaw (CRPH). The CRPH functions as an action arm and parallel government to carry out the duties of the deposed elected NLD government. In response to the Tatmadaw coup, the CPRH launched a multi-domain attack on the Tatmadaw with numerous general strikes, protests, mass civil disobedience, attacks on transportation infrastructure, and violence—to include burning down Chinese garment factories.  

On March 14, the CRPH issued a call for armed rebellion and informed the people of their right to self-defense. Anticipating this call, the Tatmadaw removed the terrorist designation from the ethnic Rakhine Arakan Army in order to persuade it from siding with the CPRH, splitting the resistance. In response, the CPRH invited the remainder of the armed ethnic guerrilla groups, including the Kachin, Karen, and Shan, to fight under its umbrella of armed resistance. 

The struggle is ongoing and escalating rapidly. This is a fight to watch, as it is a full-spectrum, multi-domain uprising against a well-resourced, capable, and brutal state security apparatus. 

Lessons from Myanmar 

The line between political warfare and civil war becomes difficult to discern when both parties wield significant power and are motivated to achieve their political end-states. This is the case of the Tatmadaw and the NLD. There are several takeaways from this situation that we in America can use to compare and contrast with our current situation and that of Catalonia. 

First, the NLD, as the current vanguard of the pro-democracy movement, is organized. It has a vast network of operatives throughout the country. The pro-democracy movement has survived military rule for almost 60 years and has maintained its effectiveness despite the non-permissive environment of the Myanmar police state. 

Secondly, the NLD uses a multi-domain approach to achieve its objectives that includes all aspects of political action. It has a demonstrated ability to use punishing general strikes and attacks on the pain points of the Tatmadaw through the use of media, information warfare, and limited cyber operations. While the NLD traditionally has eschewed the use of violence and armed resistance, it has used direct action to augment its non-violent political actions. The NLD has a deep bench of leadership, as necessitated by the regular arrest and imprisonment of its leaders. 

Thirdly, its members are fully committed to achieving their political goals. Like all political movements, they are a coalition, but they are united behind a single agenda—a democratically-elected civilian government. They are serious people who understand the gravity of their situation and are not sidetracked by frivolous First World causes. They do not posture and they are not virtue signalers or loudmouths. They know the first rule of fight club is you don’t talk about fight club, because they’ve watched hundreds of their fellow citizens killed by government forces. 

Lessons learned: 

  • Organization allows a movement to take hits and keep on going. Having a network of supporters and a deep bench of capable leaders is critical to a movement’s resilience. Organization helps maintain a movement’s momentum in the face of undemocratic and dirty-war tactics of the enemy. A shadow or backup leadership cadre, like the CPRH, is a valuable asset. 
  • A unified goal and agenda keep the movement true. When all elements of the movement support a unified goal, they are more resistant to the enemy’s information operations. When they understand a well laid-out agenda, they are capable of decentralized actions and maintaining the direction of the movement. This capability allowed the CPRH to function effectively as a proxy for the deposed elected NLD government. 
  • Use a defense-in-depth and a multi-domain strategy to attack your enemy’s weaknesses. By leading with non-violent political actions, the CPRH forced the Tatmadaw to deploy forces and show its hand early. By then escalating to punishing general strikes and attacks on transportation infrastructure, the CPRH placed stress on critical supply chains and operational nodes. By using targeted direct action, such as the burning of Chinese manufacturing concerns, they damaged the reputation of the Tatmadaw and its ability to protect foreign investments. 
  • Deploy arms only at specific points that support the greater overall political objective. By waiting until the Tatmadaw committed to a kinetic solution against the resistance movement, the CPRH’s call for armed rebellion was cast as legitimate self-defense. Furthermore, the CPRH’s shadow legislative actions authorizing the Myanmar people to arm and actively protect themselves created a collective political body to justify and support the people’s actions—making them credible freedom fighters instead of terrorists. 

An American Perspective

Organization is key. Nobody who wins fights alone, particularly when facing a well-resourced enemy. Intelligence and logistics are absolutely essential. Flexibility and resilience are critical to maintaining the momentum of a movement, and how you prepare your members will determine how successful the movement will perform under stress. 

“Train. Equip. Lead.” That is an effective mantra for managing a resistance movement.

  • Train the movement to collectively achieve a unified political goal/agenda. A movement built on a coalition that retains myriad competing political objectives is easily divided and destined to fail. Include workshops on how to properly conduct political actions, how to deal with mass surveillance, and what to do when members are detained, arrested, or facing state-sponsored violence.
  • Equip your people with the skills and resources to survive and navigate the struggle. If you do not build a support network to protect and care for your movement’s members, you are effectively using them as cannon fodder—and they will quickly see that. They then become vulnerable to the enemy’s blacklisting, information operations, and intelligence collection efforts.
  • Lead them, protect them, and appreciate their sacrifice. A political movement that is centered around a personality is a cult or a grift. A legitimate political movement should never be about the leader, it should always be about the people. 

Don’t think it can’t happen here in America? Do not be surprised when your enemy is willing to literally roll over you with tanks, beat down voters at the polls, and infiltrate and disrupt your First Amendment-protected political activities. Don’t expect your movement’s members to channel Sergeant York in the face of blacklisting and physical violence if you haven’t taken the time to prepare them, pressure-test them, and create a plan to protect them. The state always plays for keeps. As the leaders of the Catalan independence movement learned, if your movement is infected with LARPers and other unserious people, you’re going to prison. 

Americans are searching for a path to victory over the coming authoritarian leviathan, but there are few, if any, individuals emerging in conservative and independent political circles to provide guidance or leadership. Soon, Americans will have to decide whether they are going to fight or submit to the will of the ruling elites. If they choose to fight, they would be wise to examine the history of other political movements and the resulting lessons learned at the edge of liberty and tyranny.

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About Max Morton

Max Morton is a retired U.S. Marine Corps lieutenant colonel, former CIA paramilitary operations officer, and a veteran of multiple armed conflicts, revolutions, and contingency operations.

Photo: (Photo by Thiago Prudêncio/SOPA Images/LightRocket via Getty Images)